The novel demonstrates virtues in action. There are major instances of faith, hope, and love in Rukmani’s life, but of these, hope is the greatest theme. Between the marriage of Rukmani (with its symbols of fertility and good fortune) and her widowhood lie many dire tests of this hope, but Nectar in a Sieve is characteristically Indian in its vindication of suffering and the attitude that, no matter what, life can go on.
The novel cleverly combines opposite symbols from the outset as if to suggest the pivotal conflict between hope and fear. The dry mango leaves garlanding the doorway to Rukmani and Nathan’s hut presage a barren future. Yet Nathan has a rich hoard of grain to counterbalance the pessimistic fear. Then, the three women who make themselves part of Rukmani’s village life combine opposites again: Kali’s ample size and sensuality and Kunthi’s physical allure are, at first, positive qualities in contrast to Janaki’s homeliness. They see only gain in the creation of the tannery—and so are opposed to Rukmani’s fear for the loss of pastoral innocence. Their false hope for a golden future is counterpointed by Rukmani’s fear for an irretrievable past, but by the end of the story, it is the trio who are defeated in various ways by life, whereas it is Rukmani who survives her afflictions.
Nature tests human hope by magnifying people’s fears, but in the end, though never subdued by man, nature is not granted the ultimate victory. Its savage agitation does destroy its victims, and its cruel force is best resisted by a quiet spiritual force. This battle of nature against spirit is typified in the cycle of seasons, where hunger and despair are often consequences of nature’s assault. Where nature’s force is quick and brutal, the spirit is slow and patient. It takes Rukmani virtually a lifetime to learn her lesson of hope. Ironically, just as nature punishes the spirit, it also supplies the metaphor for uplifting it: As Rukmani puts it, “The sowing of seed disciplines the body and the sprouting of the seed uplifts the spirit.”